The college basketball season is underway and some teams have already made big impressions, both good (Duke University, 8-0 on the year) and bad (University of Arizona, 3-3 on the year). The Michigan State Spartans began the season with the usual “Tom Izzo Grind” schedule of facing Duke the second game of the year, then heading to the PK80 Invitational. As they get ready for the ACC/BigTen Challenge, let’s take a look at the early impressions of this Spartan team.
SLOPPY PLAY & WAY TOO MANY TURNOVERS
There are a few things you can always expect from Tom Izzo-coached teams: Crash the boards, physical play that leads to too many fouls, and play hard from start to finish. Through six games, MSU has owned the glass (minus the Duke game), played physical (minus the Duke game) and played hard from start to finish (yes, even in the Duke game). The one constant that has been through six games, TOO MANY TURNOVERS.
The season-opener against North Florida, the Spartans committed 21 turnovers. Against Duke, State committed 17 turnovers to Duke’s nine. Against DePaul, they committed 15 turnovers, and then another 24 turnovers were committed in the PK80 Victory Bracket Championship game against the defending NCAA Champion North Carolina Tar Heels. Now, in five of those six games, the turnovers did not end up costing Michigan State the victory, but at some point it will, and Tom knows this better than we do. You can bet he’s going to find ways to work on the team’s sloppy play and fix the turnover issues… if he wants his second National Championship.
For the first time in what feels like eons, Izzo has size on his side. From Miles Bridges to Nick Ward to Jaren Jackson Jr., Izzo has eight players ranging in size from 6-7 to 6-11, and he is learning to utilize that size (see North Carolina game). From disrupting shots, to completing alley-oops, the Spartan’s size is already wreaking havoc on their opponents, and they’re still learning to play together. If the PK80 Invitational is a sign of things to come for MSU, then that sign is a big flashing “don’t cross” sign. As in, don’t try to score in the paint, because it rarely works.
Against DePaul, UConn and UNC, the Spartans held them to a combined 28% shooting, and outrebounded them 138-88. Size can disrupt shots, make scorers feel uneasy, and cause them to miss open shots because they feel the defense is closer than it is (again see North Carolina game). Michigan State held 2017 NCAA Tournaments Most Outstanding Player Joel Berry II to 2-for-11 shooting, and a bunch of those misses were bunnies he normally makes with his eyes closed. You can say “oh he just missed those” or you can give credit to the sheer size of MSU and how that size presence disrupted Berry’s offense.
WINSTON’S THE KEY TO THE CAR
While having size is a huge boost, having a point guard who garners comparisons to the greatest point guard of all-time is the deciding factor. Cassius Winston was praised by Izzo before he ever stepped on the floor of the Breslin Center. And in his sophomore year at MSU, Winston is beginning to live up to the billing, most recently taking MVP honors at the PK80 Invitational. Through six games this season, Winston is averaging over 50% shooting from both inside and outside the arc for just over 12 points per game, as well as over seven assists per game. Against UConn in the PK80 semifinals, Winston exploded for 28 points on 12-for-15 shooting, including hitting 4-of-5 from deep, to go along with five assists, and more importantly, zero turnovers.
Look, I love Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn, but his lack of size, true scoring ability and court vision hurts the Spartans, and his speed can only make up for so much. But with Winston at the controls, the Michigan State offense is a beast to be reckoned with, because, just like with Magic, every player on the floor is looking his way to see who’s getting the ball. Magic’s ability to know you were open before YOU knew you were open is what made him so special, and Winston has shown flashes of that ability. He’s not 6-9 like Magic, and he might not be the enigmatic leader that Earvin was, but his talent-level at the point guard position is right up there with anyone else in the country. If he continues to improve, the Spartans will continue to win and win impressively. Big things are coming for this team, and Winston is the key that makes the car go.